Following the Allied victory in North Africa in May 1943, Britain’s King George VI was to pay a morale-boosting visit to British military forces stationed there. However, His Majesty was also desirous of making a visit to the island of Malta, from where British air and sea forces had mounted successful attacks on enemy ships transporting vital supplies and Axis troop reinforcements from Europe to North Africa. Yet, it was not just this strategic role that had brought Malta to the King’s attention; he had also been most impressed by the gallantry of the military, as well as the courage and sufferings of the local population throughout a sustained bombing campaign by the German and Italian air forces, the aim of which had been to bomb or starve the island into submission. Indeed, His Majesty had already acknowledged the ‘Island Fortress’ of Malta’s role, in April 1942, by awarding it his own decoration, the George Cross, ‘to honour her brave people…..[and] to bear witness to a heroism and devotion that will long be famous in history.’ The locals were proud of this touching act and soon took to referring to Malta as the ‘King’s Island.’
The King’s highly secret visit to North Africa and Malta, (known as ‘ Operation Loader’) commenced on the morning of Saturday, 12 June, when His Majesty (travelling as ‘General Lyon’) landed in a York Transport Aircraft in Algeria. That evening, over dinner in a villa in Algiers, the King broached the subject of his visit to Malta (which although already agreed to in principle by Churchill still required to be signed off locally for reasons of safety and security) with Admiral Sir Andrew Cunningham, the Naval Commander-in-Chief, Mediterranean, who was impressed by the strength of George VI’s arguments and needed little further persuasion. For good measure, the determined monarch also discussed the matter with Air Marshal Arthur Tedder, who informed his boss in London that ‘the King insists on going to Malta’.
Thus, at 8.15 am on a sunny Sunday June morning, King George VI, dressed in naval whites, hand at the salute, stood on a specially-constructed platform atop a turret of the heavily camouflaged British Royal Navy frigate, HMS Aurora (under the command of Commodore W. G. Agnew and flying the Royal Standard) as it entered Valetta’s Grand Harbour, having sailed the 200 miles overnight from Tripoli, escorted by the destroyers Eskimo, Jervis, Nubian and Lookout. The King’s visit had been kept so secret that local officials had not learned of it until three hours beforehand, for it must be remembered that there were enemy air bases situated a mere 60 miles away in Italy. Nevertheless, all the local vantage points were filled with cheering loyal Maltese civilians and British servicemen. When His Majesty landed by the Customs House, at 9.30am, the bells of local churches filled the air. The King later described this as ‘a very moving moment for me.’
George VI’s first port of call, in his open-topped car, was the Palace where he held a Council and presented John Gort, the Governor, with a Field Marshal’s baton. He also inspected the George Cross awarded to the island. The King then proceeded onto the Palace balcony and received a rousing ovation from the populace in the square below. Thereafter, His Majesty travelled to the Naval Dockyard. As most of the structures above ground had been decimated in the bombings, the King was shown over the underground workshops by Rear-Admiral Mackenzie. These were housed in a complex of tunnels, many of which had been excavated by hand.
His Majesty subsequently journeyed to the nearby area of Senglea which in truth, like the dockyard was, he later noted, but a ‘mere shell.’ Accompanied by Canon Emmanuel Brincat, the Archpriest of Senglea, he walked through the narrow streets, including the aptly-named Victory Street, and saw first-hand the ruined houses which had once provided shelter to the local inhabitants who, nonethless, turned out in droves to greet their Sovereign with flags and banners and confettti.
The King later travelled to the Verdala Palace, the current residence of the Governor, to partake of lunch, enjoy a brief rest and greet a party of 20 staff officers. George VI, accompanied by Gort, then visited Mosta, which had suffered heavy attacks as it was in the vicinity of Ta Qali Aerodrome. It was during his afternoon tour of the military aerodromes that the King knighted the New Zealander, Air Marshal Keith Park, who had overseen the air defence of the island. As the King’s car passed through local villages en route, flowers were thrown into the vehicle and although His Majesty was touched by the gesture, the fastidious monarch subsequently observed that this had been ‘detrimental to my white uniform.’
After dining with the Governor, the King embarked HMS Aurora which set sail at 10 p.m. for the return passage to Tripoli. It is worth noting that George VI’s visit was the first time a Sovereign had landed in Malta since 1911 and, as he reflected on it, His Majesty noted that it had been ‘a very strenuous day but a very interesting one to have spent.’ To Queen Mary, he described it as ‘The real gem of my tour.’